“In the air, on land, and sea” is an apt description of Marine Corps life. There are few Marines who get to experience every aspect of the entire Marine Corps: enlisted and officer, peacetime and war, and fighting that war in the air, on land, and sea. “Hammerin’ Hank” Elrod did all of it, and it earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
When Henry T. Elrod first joined the Corps, the year was 1927 and Elrod was studying first at the University of Georgia and Yale. World War II was still more than a decade away and the United States was at peace all over the world. Elrod decided to become a Marine Corps aviator, became a second lieutenant, and went to flight school. He worked training and staff duties for much of his career.
On Dec. 4, 1941, he was sent to Wake Island with his fighter squadron, composed of 12 pilots and their F4F Wildcat fighter aircraft. On Dec. 8, 1941 (Wake Island is on the other side of the international date line), the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked American possessions in the Pacific Ocean: Wake Island, along with Pearl Harbor in Hawaii (where it was still Dec. 7), the Philippines and Guam.
Unlike the other American possessions attacked that day, the initial Japanese attack on Wake was unsuccessful. Japanese aircraft destroyed eight of the 12 Wildcats on the ground, but the remaining four were out on patrol. They were able to help the Marines fend off the first Japanese landing on Dec. 11, 1941. The Japanese lost two destroyers in the attempt, one to Marine coastal defense guns and the other to Hammerin’ Hank’s Wildcat.
Elrod single-handedly attacked a force of 22 enemy aircraft, shooting down two before engaging the ships of the invasion force. Conducting strafing runs and low-altitude bombing missions, Elrod became the first pilot to sink a warship when his Wildcat’s bombs struck a Japanese destroyer on its stern, blowing up its depth charges. The Japanese withdrew without landing, but they would return.
Before they came back for another landing attempt on Dec. 23, however, they would attack the island numerous times to weaken its defenses. Because of the presence of so much Japanese firepower, the U.S. Navy would not be able to reinforce or resupply Wake Island’s defenders, so they were on their own. Eventually, the repeated Japanese attacks would destroy the remaining aircraft and aviator Henry Elrod became a rifleman.
Still facing an imminent invasion by an overwhelming enemy force, Elrod reorganized the defenders of Wake Island into a beach defense unit. When the Japanese attack finally came on Dec. 23, they landed at multiple points on the island. Beach defense guns took out a number of patrol boats and forced Japanese Marines to bypass the gun emplacements. Those Marines were then forced back to the beaches by a strong American counterattack.
The strength of Japanese numbers was too much for the island’s defenders, and though they inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy, were eventually forced to surrender. Each of the island’s American defenders were killed, captured or wounded. Hammerin’ Hank Elrod was mortally wounded on Dec. 23, 1941. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the air, on land, and sea at Wake Island.
American forces wouldn’t return to Wake, instead they starved its Japanese garrison with a submarine blockade for the duration of the war. Survivors of the war were captured in September 1945 and its leadership was put on trial for war crimes. One was executed, another was given a life sentence.